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High expectations and a desire for growth fuel Gabriel Unwin’s college dream

Written by
Dilys Pierson

July 27, 2021


Gabe Unwin photo

Gabriel Unwin grew up fast. The second child born to a teenage mother before her 18th birthday, Gabe spent his childhood and early teen years living in a two-bedroom trailer in Highgate, where he and his older sister mostly raised their three younger siblings. Their mom, who was busy working three jobs to support the family, wasn’t home much. 

“My mother worked so hard to raise five children all on her own,” Gabe says. “She’s such a tough woman. Now I realize that we were just scraping by, but at the time I didn’t see it as a rough childhood. I thought it was normal. We didn’t go to other people’s houses, so I didn’t really get to see how other people lived. I was appreciative and glad that I was with my family.” 

The family moved to a bigger place when Gabe turned 16, which allowed him to have his own room. “I am so thankful for that,” he says. It marked a major turning point for Gabe, who finally felt like he had the space to define his own dreams. 

“Growing up, I didn’t really have a voice,” he remembers. “I did what everyone told me to do.”

His one outlet was basketball. “It’s been a part of my life since the third grade. I was a tall kid, taller than the rest, and I could run fast, so the coach was like, ‘Get that boy on the court!’” Gabe recalls with a grin. “Ever since then, basketball has given me confidence. It’s that feeling of knowing you’re capable of doing things when others might not believe in you.”

Gabe’s high school basketball coach, Matt Walker, says he enjoyed watching Gabe grow into a leader over the years. 

“I had heard about his difficult life, but you’d never know it,” says Walker. “Gabe was always so positive. He showed up early, stayed late, never missed a thing. He was captain this past year and was always interested in helping out and improving the team.”
The basketball world provided Gabe with an influential role model: LeBron James, who also grew up with a very young single mother and had a challenging childhood. “I remember watching his story,” Gabe recalls. “He’s had such big expectations put on him since he was 16. And I thought: ‘Why can’t I do the same thing for myself?’ Not necessarily to be better than everyone else, but to have the highest expectations for myself. To be better than the Gabe I was the day before.”

That inspiration for personal growth led Gabe to dream of being the first in his family to go to college. 

“I want to show people that the sky’s the limit. I want to be the person that inspires others to be great as well,” says Gabe, keeping his younger siblings — brother Maliki, sister Shanneal, and his youngest brother JavannDrey — foremost in mind.

Gabe has achieved that dream. After graduating on June 11 from Missisquoi Valley Union High School, he’s headed to Southern New Hampshire University in the fall, where he plans to major in business management and, of course, try out for the basketball team. 
“I feel accomplished somewhat, but I feel like I can still do more. I’m excited, but I’m also kind of scared. I have high expectations for myself,” Gabe says. 

Those high expectations almost paralyzed Gabe when it came time to start the college application process.  

“At the end of my sophomore year, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I had no idea what steps to take. Growing up with a family that didn’t go to college, I didn’t have any inside help,” he says. “The stress and anxiety of not wanting to fail almost overcame everything.”
It’s precisely for students like Gabriel that the VSAC Talent Search program exists. Since 1969, the program has been providing career and college planning services to high-potential students who meet income guidelines and have an interest in pursuing education or training beyond high school. Talent Search offers counseling for career and college planning, financial aid assistance, and academic support, including advising on high school course selections. 

“I can’t tell you enough how thankful I am for VSAC,” Gabe says. “Everyone who wanted the help could sign up for it, and those who signed up did really well. Kate [Rowland, Gabe’s VSAC counselor] and my guidance counselor told me what I needed to do. That made it way easier.”

“I’m so thankful that VSAC helped me build a future for myself,” Gabe says. 

“Gabe has never lost sight of his dream to be the first person in his family to go to college,” says Rowland. “I’m inspired by Gabe because of his dedication to himself and to his family. You see him with his siblings at school. They hang out together; they take care of each other. 

“Gabe will never fail to make me laugh, and I’m usually left feeling amazed by what a kind, humble, and positive person he is. He is one of those people that can light up a room. Gabe wears his heart on his sleeve, and he’s about as honest as they come. He’s able to reflect on his life and learn from whatever comes down his path.” 

As far as his goals after college, Gabe says he wants to start out by helping a small business owner grow their business. Later on, he might complement his business degree by picking up some hands-on skills in a technical area, such as electrical work or plumbing, and turn that into a business of his own. 

“I’m definitely coming back to Franklin County, though,” he adds. “I have family here that I need to take care of.”

When asked what he’s most looking forward to in college, Gabe answers quickly and definitively with a single word: “Growth.”

“I want to absorb everything. I’m looking forward to learning things about myself that I didn’t know. I’m still learning who Gabe Unwin is. But I’m also glad that I’m the person I am.” 

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